A safe haven in Damascus

Iraqi anti-government factions are able to to freely operate in Syria, provoking accusations from Baghdad that Damascus is tacitly supporting terrorism.

A picture of Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, a figurehead of Iraqi insurgents, and Saddam Hussein, Iraq's deposed former president, hangs in the Damascus headquaters of the Iraqi Baath Party, 14th July 2009.  Iraqi Baathists in Syria say they have held talks with a European diplomat and Iraqi government envoys. *** Local Caption ***  Iraqi Baath Party HQ in Syria_1.jpg
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DAMASCUS // Long before the devastating bombings of Iraq's finance and foreign ministries on August 19, the Baghdad authorities were well aware that dissident Iraqi Baathists, and numerous other groups advocating the violent overthrow of the Iraqi government, were in Syria. Various insurgent factions and their political representatives, including members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, held a televised conference at a cultural centre in Damascus last year. Delegates from Sunni, Shiite and secular backgrounds took turns denouncing the US occupation and the Iraqi authorities for collaborating with foreign invaders. The US forces should be forcibly kicked out, they said, and the Iraqi government should be evicted with them.

Just last month, 30 or so members of the Supreme Leadership for Jihad and Liberation, a network of more than half a dozen insurgent organisations, including the Iraqi Baath Party, held a summit meeting. Over kebabs and spit-roasted chicken after the conference they discussed how to push the US military out of Iraq and how to topple the government. So, although it is not something the Syrian authorities make a point of boasting about, their hosting of various Iraqi rejectionist groups also is not something they have ever gone out of their way to hide. Baghdad certainly knew that Saddam loyalists, bent on its destruction, were in Syria back in February when it dispatched Alaa al Jawadi as the first Iraqi ambassador to Damascus in more than 20 years.

And the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, knew as much when he made his visit to the Syrian President Bashar Assad on August 18 for a meeting that established a joint Syrian-Iraq strategic council. All the talk on the day was of Syrian-Iraqi relations, long strained, entering a new era of economic, political and security co-operation. The following day, two massive lorry bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing 95 people and wounding more than 1,000 others.

While acts of mass murder are routine in the new Iraq with various factions typically blamed - Iranian-supported death squads, Saudi jihadis, Syrian Islamic extremists, even Afghan or Pakistani fighters - these blasts, unlike previous ones, turned into a major international incident. On the day of the bombs Iraqi security forces say they caught suspects and, within four days, they had extracted a confession from one, a former police officer, that he had jointly masterminded the explosion with Iraqi Baathist colleagues based in Syria. The Iraqi government angrily and publicly demanded Syria stop its support for "terrorist groups" and withdrew its ambassador. Damascus responded in kind.

Of course, Iraq's Baathists are hardly averse to murdering their fellow countrymen. They did it for decades under Saddam Hussein. And they have been involved in more death and destruction since the US-led invasion of 2003. Likewise, Syria has long stood accused of fuelling the violent chaos in Iraq by deliberately allowing militants to cross its border, allegations it has always denied. Nevertheless, serious questions remain over the claims against the Syrian-based Baathists. The timing of the allegations is also curious and, it would seem, deeply politicised.

Iraq's security forces, struggling to cope with a powerful and recently revitalised insurgency, are rarely effective at catching militants, so their quick success in this case is suspicious. And televised confessions hardly constitute proof in any reliable judicial system especially given the reputation the Iraqi army and police have for torturing their suspects. Another reason to doubt the involvement of Syrian-based pro-Saddamists was raised when the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qa'eda-style extremist group, claimed responsibility for the bombs. Although both are involved in the insurgency, the secular Baathists and Islamic al Qa'eda are hardly natural allies and the Baathists have denied any connection.

The Iraqi Baathists in Syria themselves denied any role in the bombing. In interviews given to The National before the attacks, an official with the Iraqi Baath Party insisted that shedding Iraqi blood was forbidden, and that various insurgency operations targeting the US military had been cancelled because they would result in civilian casualties. After the bombing, the Syrian-based Iraqi opposition alliance, including the Baathists, rejected suggestions they were responsible. Recalling an ambassador is always a theatrical act of protest, rather than a constructive step designed to solve problems, because it cuts off direct dialogue; the Turkish foreign minister has now been drafted into a round of shuttle diplomacy and tomorrow will fly between Baghdad and Damascus to try to defuse the crisis.

That has further bemused the Syrian authorities, who immediately condemned the bombings as terrorism. Given that Iraq and Syria's respective leaders had just set up a joint strategic council and had not long exchanged ambassadors, Damascus says it expected Iraq would have used that diplomatic channel to catch any suspects. If evidence or arrest warrants against the accused had been issued, Syria says it would have honoured them. The answer as to why this diplomatic storm happened now, not when previous Baathists attacks had taken place, perhaps lies in Iraqi domestic politics and recent efforts to pull Iraqi Baathists out of the insurgency and into national political life.

Mr al Maliki's Shiite-led government has taken few practical steps at national reconciliation, which critics say has only encouraged militancy. Still excluded by punitive de-Baathification legislation and with the Baath partly still outlawed, members of the former regime and the old Iraqi army have little incentive to lay down their weapons and join the political process. In the absence of such moves, the US military began its own. Earlier this year it held meetings with Iraqi insurgents in Turkey, prompting heavy criticism from the al Maliki government. Then this month a US military delegation to Damascus, a sign of improving Syrian relations with Washington, was reported to have discussed a plan that would include Syria mediating with the Baathists after moderates within the Iraqi Baath party indicated they were willing to join the political process before the next elections in January.

The Damascus representative of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, part of Iraq's governing Shiite coalition, had previously advocated just such a role for Syria in an interview, saying that in hosting Iraqi Baathists, Syria was keeping open a vital channel for negotiations. But the US-Syrian move also sparked an angry rebuke from Mr al Maliki, who apparently does not share the desire to hold talks with Baathists.

If Iraqi Baathists living in Syria were involved in the August 19 bombings, this latest political crisis has done nothing to help bring the perpetrators to justice. The Syrians have made it clear they will not be expelling Baathists, just as they did not hand Mr al Maliki or his colleagues, many of whom once lived safely in Damascus, to Saddam when he ruled Baghdad and they were the insurgents. What this diplomatic storm does appear to have achieved, however, is to block efforts at national Iraqi reconciliation that were gaining momentum. And that means the war in Iraq will continue to rumble on.